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Farm Bill Needs Debate, Not Swift Passage

Chris Edwards

Congress is scheduled to consider a farm bill this fall to reauthorize farm programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Extending current programs would cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years, but there will be efforts to boost benefit levels and add new programs.

The farm bill will be a fiscal responsibility test for Congress in the wake of the May debt‐​ceiling deal. Will House Republicans insist on cost savings in the farm bill, or will the bill pass in the usual budget‐​busting frenzy?

In a group led by Scott Faber of EWG, we discussed yesterday with House and Senate staffers reasons why farm subsidies should be curtailed. One option on the table is imposing tighter income limits on crop subsidies, which are currently paid to many high‐​income landowners. Subsidizing rich people should be opposed by both progressive Democrats and Republicans of either the free market or populist variety.

However, an obstacle to reform is that some members are intensely parochial—they focus on keeping the handouts flowing to their states at the expense of overall budget discipline.

In June, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell demanded quick passage of the farm bill: “Congress needs to do its job and get this legislation across the finish line — swiftly.” Ironically, he praised the “fiscal sanity” of the debt‐​ceiling deal while also insisting on a farm bill that “puts farmers first” rather than taxpayers first.

Congress should not pass a farm bill “swiftly” because we need a debate about subsidizing wealthy farm businesses. Fortunately, some farm‐​state members accept the need for at least modest reforms. Senators Chuck Grassley and Sherrod Brown note that “just 10 percent of farm operations receive 70 percent of all yearly farm payment subsidies,” and they are proposing to “create a hard cap of $250,000 in total commodity support for any one farm operation.” That would be a step forward, although the proposal does not cap crop insurance, which has no income limits and even benefits billionaires.

Another reason not to pass a farm bill “swiftly” is that we need a debate about the nutrition failings of SNAP. SNAP spending has soared to more than $120 billion a year with almost one‐​quarter of the benefits going for junk food. It makes no sense that the government is paying $30 billion a year for empty calories when the obesity rate and federal debt are soaring.

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Senator Marco Rubio has proposed national rules to cut the junk food, but a simpler reform would be to approve waivers for states that want to cut foods from their programs. Numerous states have requested waivers in the past, but federal officials have denied them.

Democrats are lining up against SNAP cuts this year, but “conservative lawmakers sought large cuts in SNAP in the 2014 and 2018 farm bills, so the new farm bill is a logical target.” Indeed, SNAP is a logical target for cuts, but so are subsidies for wealthy farm businesses.

More on SNAP here and farm subsidies here.

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